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The Big Picture (The good, the bad and the ugly in Homeless World Sacramento) Part I

If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? -- William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice
While I feel certain that homeless people (including myself) deserve the sympathies and aid of the public and much robust support from the government, I don’t think this because I believe Sacramento’s homeless population could pass as a cross section of the general population (as we're often portrayed). The homeless, who are the bottom 1% socially and economically in our society are, as you would suppose, disproportionate to the whole in being mentally ill; or mentally unusual; or psychically beat up; or depressed; or addicted; or in having quirks or criminal records or spotty resumes or damaged psyches that frustrate getting or holding onto a job.

Too, among the homeless are a great many who are asocial – who will steal or destroy things without a moment’s consideration of others who are hurt by these actions. There are also many charming con men “out here” who use lies and deception to get what they want, and think all others are morally just as they are -- but soft, somehow, and without the skill-set to match these con artists’ supposed rates of conniving ”success.” Others are rascals who take sadistic pleasure in what mayhem they stir up. The least-mature of these adult rascals litter and write on wet cement and mess up public restrooms and giggle when they poop on the sides of buildings at night.

There are actions and antics by many of my brethren that are ground for all the hate that gets directed toward homeless folk. Any time an article or Marcos Breton column about the homeless is published in the Bee, the usual haters whip out their keyboards to pound out mean-spirited spiels as online comments. No doubt, these haters are representative of a large number of people in our metropolis -- who feel similarly to Michele Bachmann who not long ago said, “if the sick and homeless want healthcare, they should get a job and make their own way.” Yes, well. It’s not that easy.

While a good many of the Sacramento homeless could never acquire a veneer of gentility such to be made ready for a pleasant dinner party or a spirited discussion of Spinoza, they think and feel in complete abundance and their lives – our lives – are as much an entire universe of joy and drama and meaning as any more-conventional citizen’s. We are real – though, for some of us, we’re not always altogether sure of that in the beat-up condition we find ourselves.

Among the homeless, too, is an overabundance of people who don’t have a grasp of how the world operates; they don’t see “the big picture.” They believed that one nutty Gospel Mission preacher [who lasted for just the one night] who told us the sun goes around the earth or that people once shared the planet with dinosaurs or that Obama is the antiChrist. These homeless fellows' knowledge isn’t enough encyclopedic to warn them away from the complete nonsense that often comes along disguised as information. They are insecured, left gullible, and this vulnerability leaves them wide open to being taken advantage of (or of being rendered homeless in the first place).

Yet others have very simply fallen out of their lives in one of the many ways that can happen. The money ran out and they are broken. A consumptive sequence of events has left them bedraggled and without resources.

But there are great virtues in Homeless World, too. One -- completely contrary to the stereotype that the homeless are all lay-abouts unwilling to work – is that homeless guys wanting to work always outnumber the jobs that can be found. There is always a desire for work and no job that comes along goes unfilled.

So-called “Daily Bread” casual-labor jobs that Loaves & Fishes used to offer (and may still, on a limited basis) get filled, always – except in the case of “employers” who gain the reputation of cheating guys out of what pay is owed. Casual jobs at Loaves & Fishes that are paid using $5 McDonald’s giftcards are always filled. Indeed, may homeless people volunteer to work for NOTHING at Loaves & Fishes on a scheduled basis. Some guys work twenty, thirty hours a week.  And these NO-PAY jobs are competitive (though subscribing to the nutty communist politics of Loaves gives one a leg up in getting one of the positions).

At the mission, if there is a shortage of guys assigned kitchen duty, there is no problem rustling up volunteers to work, with no benefit forthcoming to these instant recruits for doing so.

Famously, too, homeless guys collect bottles and cans for recycling. There’s neither reluctance nor embarrassment to do that. Some fellows have mapped out favored collection spots and tell me they feel well compensated by the recycling business for their efforts. Other guys collect cans but complain they don't make much from it. Other guys are hooked up with folks who will use them to hold signs on the sidewalk at intersections.  Often, in these Hard Times, these jobs -- which in years past had paid OK -- are now npaid under the table at less than minimum wage.

Other guys, may not think of it that way, but they truly have launched themselves as small-business men. A couple skilled guys I know get work in Granite Bay providing the manpower for home-improvement projects. Another fellow gets permission from businessmen and homeowners to pass his metal-detector equipment over a property to find treasure. By some prior arrangement, this fellow either gets paid for what is found, or gets a split of what coins, jewelry or whatever is unearthed.

Another guy I know frequently does yardwork for an appreciative homeowner. Yet another guy has set himself up washing businesses’ windows. Other fellows used to use Labor Ready for temporary manual labor, but that agency is no longer in business or open to homeless clients.  Other agencies sometimes can be talked into giving a homeless fellow a chance.  Doors get knocked on; it's rare, but sometimes opportunity follows.

The Union Gospel Mission, as part of its Rehab program, used to be able to arrange opportunities for many of the graduates to get employment.  In recent years, UGM's efforts at helping find jobs has been significantly waylaid by the bad economy.

It’s a wacky, dirty world – homelessness is. But primarily, it is achingly poignant. Even the biggest scoundrels in this world have sides to their personalities that are funny or wistful or oddly -- but fully -- generous. We get by with little, endure suffering, live in the midst of a lot of craziness and there is something weirdly OK and distressingly habitual that settles into being our routine. We become like the frog in the beaker where the water temperature rises so slowly he doesn’t notice that he's being slowly boiled unto death. In many ways, our life, our future is escaping from us – drifting away like a gentle patch of steam.

But even when weeks pass by without the simplest "luxury" -- a cup of Starbuck's or clean socks -- just as with anyone, the circumstance that we’re in NOW is our life.  It's where attachments and friends and challenges and intrigue meld into a daily drama.  In this -- behold! -- we are just like conventional citizens.  No different, whatever.
Update:  The second in this series relating the Big Picture of what it feels like to be homeless has been posted and can be found here: "Big Picture Part II: The indignities and precarity of being rendered homeless in Sacramento"


Dave C. said…
Thomas....What a lovely, poignant, well written, and so, so true and accurate story! I have been saying much the same thing, but much less eloquently, in my blog also, HomeLessCide-' Life On The Street', (, along with that the best thing one can give us, if nothing else, is an acknowledgement of our shared humanity and the simple dignity of not avoiding eye contact and acting as if we don't exist.
Thank You for sharing the fact that the jobs vs. availability ratio is not anywhere near even. Walk into a day labor exchange and see how many people are left when the jobs run out every morning, in some cases people are forced to choose between showing up at 4:00 am. or earlier to line up for only a possible minimum wage job...(minus, transportation, rental fees or installment purchase deductions for safety equipment or even gloves at times, cashing fees for paychecks, (and even 'honorariums' sometimes to the people behind the desk assigning the jobs....if you want to work), and if a call comes in after 7:00 or 8:00 am., and one has to take multiple buses to get there and come back,..before the office closes for the day..and get paid that day.....well 4 to 6 hours of actual employment is not unusual for a 12 hour day...$20.00 whole dollars! I've made more panhandling on the expressway off ramp in 3 hours when I used to do that.....and I've also gotten $4.00 for 4 hours. Now, when the need to get cash is pressing, I'll find a case of candy bars, or ID wallets etc. on a clearance sale for pennies on the dollar and try to sell them on the same corner. It adds a bit of dignity and the veneer of an equal exchange to what both parties know is an act of charity by asking for a "suggested donation" of $1.00. Many times folks will say keep the candy to sell 'again' and hand me a dollar, or whatever coin they may have, more or less, and quite often amounts much in excess of $1.00. Comments such as "choosing between a straight up begging request and at least a semblance of an actual transaction, I'm going to give to the person who is making the effort." Eventually, (once medical and my mental health issues get resolved and SSA claims determined, my idea is to parlay profits upward into a city peddler's license and permits and enough of a stake to hit a jobber's warehouse for whatever looks cheap, salable, and portable.) Who knows what opportunities the new year will bring. Thanks again, and whichever solstice time holiday you celebrate......appropriate!

Dave Cluster
Very cool Blog... I have a website called, “California Homeless Resources”. and a blog dedicated to the homeless as well:
Thanks, Dave. I'll add your blogsite to my blogroll and be one of your attentive readers.

I'm eager to get the public in Sacramento to better understand the tribulations of being homeless. The ridiculous stereotype persists that it is a life a laziness and no worries. Hardly.

I very much appreciate your kind words. And the reminder that I should include something on the temporary agencies here is Sacramento in my piece, or in Part II of it.
Deanna Enos said…
I have a warm wool coat. I think someone could use it this winter. Where should I take it.
Deanna, You can give your coat to the Union Gospel Mission [400 Bannon St.; Sacramento] or to Loaves & Fishes [North B and Ahern] and they will make the coat available to a woman who can make good use of it.
Well Written... I am sitting here half dressed and didn't move until I was finished reading AND making a comment!

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